The Theology of Johnny Cash: Part 6, I Will Let You Down, I Will Make You Hurt

We continue our reflections on themes of solidarity in the music of Johnny Cash. In this post we turn to drug use and addiction.

Recall the lyric from the song "The Man in Black":
[I wear the black] for the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold
As I've mentioned in these posts, Johnny Cash struggled with drug use and addiction for decades. The drug use began in the late '50s, taking amphetamines to keep awake driving between stops on tour and for energy during concerts. The drug use worsened through the early and mid-60s with band and family members increasingly expecting an overdose that would end Cash's life. And Cash had many close calls.

Things got to such a point that Cash wanted to kill himself. In Cash's autobiography he describes going into a cave in 1968 intending to commit suicide (by getting lost in the cave). But something else happened. Laying in the dark of the cave Cash had a spiritual experience, an encounter with God. Cash found his way back out of the cave and claimed that his encounter with God allowed him to quit drugs right then and there.

But as Robert Hilburn recounts in his recent biography, Cash's story isn't true. Cash still took drugs after 1968, if somewhat less frequently. The biggest event that reduced Cash's drug use, according to Hilburn, wasn't the cave experience but the birth of Cash's son--John Carter Cash--in 1970. Still, even after his son's birth Cash continued to struggle with drugs and had to eventually seek inpatient care at the Betty Ford Center in 1983.

Bono, the lead singer of U2, tells the story of visiting Cash and eating dinner at Cash's house in Nashville. As Bono recounts, “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard. Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’”

All that to say, Johnny Cash was a man who could speak to those in the darkness of addiction, those who know the cycles of dependence, cleaning up, relapse, and moving through these seasons of light and darkness throughout a lifespan.

Two songs--one early and one late career--come to mind in thinking about how Cash gave voice to those struggling with drug use and addiction.

The first song is "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down." The song was written by Kris Kristofferson and was covered by both Ray Stevens and Kristofferson. But Cash's version in 1970 topped the country charts.

The lyrics of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" tell the story of a man waking up on a Sunday morning with a hangover. To help with the headache he drinks two beers for breakfast. Disheveled, the man stumbles out of the house to take a walk.

On the walk the man lights up a cigarette. He passes by a home where he smells "the Sunday smell of someone fryin' chicken." The smell takes him back to a painful memory, "back to somethin' / that I'd lost somewhere, somehow along the way." The man passes by a full church. And a park with a Dad pushing his daughter on a swing. All these sights, smells and sounds bring the ache of alienation. The life of drug use has caused the man to be solitary and alone. And so he sings a lament, the chorus of the song:
On a Sunday morning sidewalk
I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone

And there ain't nothin' short of dyin'
As half as lonesome as the sound
Of a sleepin' city sidewalk
And Sunday mornings coming down
Johnny Cash knew that feeling. Waking up from the drugs on a Sunday morning and feeling adrift, cut off from family from faith from life itself.

The second song to note here is the song "Hurt," the Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) song Cash covered on the Rick Rubin produced album American IV: The Man Comes Around.

In 1993 Cash felt his music career was over. But the successful hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin wanted to work with a legend. So Rubin approached Cash. Initially, Cash was skeptical. Mainly from self-doubt. But the two men hit it off and eventually produced six albums. Rubin and Cash recorded songs together right up to Cash's death in 2003. The albums Cash and Rubin did together were both critical and popular successes and made Johnny Cash relevant to a whole new generation.

One of Rubin's ideas was to have Cash cover material outside of Cash's genre, songs from punk, metal and alternative rock bands. The idea was genius. The lyrics of angst-filled youth when paired with Cash's older, faltering and gritty voice pulled out of the songs unseen depths of meaning and pathos. The most famous example of this is Cash's version of "Hurt."

"Hurt" was written by Reznor in the midst of his heroin addiction. But sung by Cash the song takes on a retrospective feel, a old man looking back on a lifetime of pain, loss and hurt. And much of that hurt, we know, was due to Cash's own personal struggles with drug addiction. Sung by a man looking back on a lifetime of pain and regret Cash's "Hurt" is haunting and heart-breaking:
I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that's real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar's chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here

What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way
The award-winning music video done by Cash for "Hurt" is widely considered to be one of the best music videos of all time.

Part 7: The Birth of the Man in Black

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6 thoughts on “The Theology of Johnny Cash: Part 6, I Will Let You Down, I Will Make You Hurt”

  1. So many moments in that video that cut right through the soul. A couple of examples: When he sings, "What have I become, my sweetest friend?" and June Carter Cash is looking down at him with love and pain on her face. When he sings of his "empire of dirt" and we see scenes from the Johnny Cash museum, and think of all the fame, acclaim and fortune he had–and to him it's just dirt. Wow.

  2. One of the things that strike me about Johnny Cash (and I'm still very new to him) is his ability to bridge the gap between his solitary (almost sulking) nature and his need and appreciation for community (Church). He straddles these worlds - brings together the desperate, defeated addict and the clean faced choir boy, both in the same song/person! I've yet to find any bitterness or cynicism in him (but, like I say, I'm just getting to know him).

  3. One thing serious addiction should do to you is to rid you of all traces of Arminianism. The radical experience of the bondage of the will, of the impotence of resolve and "choice", renders the idea of "cooperating" with grace a painful tease, a theological shuck. You contribute to your own healing like a person with a malignant tumor collaborates with his surgeon, to your own deliverance like an incapacitated drowning person assists his rescuer. Addicts who become Christians, if they consistently think it through, become seriously sola gratia Christians - and will find (I commend) a wonderful exegesis of their life, faith, struggles, and hope in the work of Karl Barth.

  4. From the liner notes of American V: A Hundred Highways - Rubin speaking of their relationship.
    "....I had never taken communion before, so [Cash] had someone find his old communion kit. He hadn't used it in many years but he did that day and Johnny gave me my first communion. We spoke about doing it every day, and that's when the ritual began. Each day we would speak on the phone and Johnny would perform the communion rite. We would both visualize and internalize, eyes closed. It was performed as a mediation. A moment to connect deeply to spirit. Every call always ended the same way. 'I love you, John.' 'I love you, Rick.'"

  5. I know a LOT of addicts - both recovering and not - and that has not been my experience. Every addict I know who has been successful in recovery has worked their ass off to maintain their sobriety, make amends, and work out their stuff. Yes, there is an initial "admit you are powerless over your addiction" moment, where you have to admit that your life and drinking/drug use is out of control.

    But that moment is just the start of the work that you need to do - and that work is hard and painful and takes a long time, and you have to choose to do it, and keep choosing it - even if the intersection of addiction and choice is a complicated mix of biology, trauma, experience, and will. I just think for addicts that the choices are different - they can choose not to drink or use at all, but once they take that first drink or first hit, their choices are significantly impaired. (Augusten Burroughs does a good job of explaining some of the interplay of this in Dry, his memoir of being a raging alcoholic, getting sober, relapsing, and getting sober again - although he's not a Christian, so Jesus doesn't really enter into the discussion one way or another.)

    Some addicts hit bottom and get better, and some just seem to fall forever, and I don't think anyone totally understands why. I've seen some addicts meet Jesus in a moment of epiphany, and that was a significant part of overcoming their addiction. But I know just as many addicts who got sober without Jesus being in the equation and just as many who were Christians and never overcame their addiction. My brother died last month after many years of addiction, and in the battle between his addiction and his belief in Jesus, Jesus was soundly defeated. He just couldn't face all the pain he was escaping from, and there's no magic Savior that lets you bypass all the excruciating shit you have to walk through to get better.

    Of course, I've never read Karl Barth, so I don't know how his work would apply.

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